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Urban Gardening on the Third Floor

urban-gardening-window-box

Kerry Trueman and Matt Rosenberg began by growing tomatoes on the roof of their third-floor walk-up in the West Village more than 20 years ago.

“We didn’t know anything — we used Miracle-Gro,” said Ms. Trueman, 54, who blogs about the politics of food for Civil Eats and writes about climate change for Moms Clean Air Force. “But it changed the way I viewed things in cities. Whenever I was on a high floor, looking down, I would see all this roof space and say: ‘Wow, you could grow so much. There are no woodchucks or deer, no Japanese beetles. And so many things grow so well in containers.’ ”

They used a ladder to climb through the roof hatch then. They built large planters for strawberries and 20 different kinds of roses. They grew blueberries and corn and hops. They had to dismantle the roof garden in 1998 during a legal battle to keep their building rent-stabilized. But by then, they were hooked. “Tomatoes are the gateway drug,” Ms. Trueman said.

These days, their garden reincarnation resides in boxes that face south, east and north outside the windows of that same 450-square-foot apartment. At 4 ½ feet long by 1 ½ feet wide and deep, the containers are almost too big to call window boxes.

“Matt calls them coffins,” Ms. Trueman said.

Bright orange nasturtiums and Oregon Sugar peas scramble up a homemade bamboo and yarn trellis. Panther edamame, black soybeans planted from seed, are already up, soon to provide a little dappled shade to the Bright Lights chard, which is more tolerant of the heat than spinach.

Made of rot-resistant cedar, the boxes are held snugly to the walls by heavy-duty steel brackets, the kind used to keep air-conditioners from falling to the ground. Wooden slats are spaced slightly apart at the bottom, for drainage. And unlike coffins or traditional window boxes, they have only three sides. The open side faces into their apartment, so that plants growing in malleable bags called Root Pouches can be easily moved in and out.

“I play musical chairs with them,” said Ms. Trueman, holding up an empty 10-gallon bag with a wide double-stitched handle. “They come in all different sizes. You can grow herbs in the one-gallon pouch. And they’re made of recycled plastic water bottles.”

If the haricots verts are shading out the Ichiban eggplants, or the arugula has gone to seed and it’s time to put in the Sun Gold cherry tomato plant, no problem. At the end of the season, the bags can be washed, folded and stored in a city-size closet.

They are evidence that urban gardening is a lot easier now than it was 20 years ago, when Ms. Trueman would lug 20-pound bags of peat moss and mushroom soil uptown from the Smith & Hawken on Broadway in SoHo.

Now she uses lightweight compressed bricks of Eco-co Coir Potting Mix, which expand into 10 quarts of potting soil when mixed with water.

“I combine them with compost from the Lower East Side Ecology Center and a little Perlite,” said Ms. Trueman. If she is growing flowers or fruit like alpine strawberries or eggplants, she mixes in a little Peruvian bat guano, which is rich in phosphate and potassium. If she is growing dwarf blueberries, which need acid soil, she adds a bit of Holly-tone.

To protect plants from becoming waterlogged during a heavy rain, Better Than Rocks, another recycled plastic material, can be layered into the bottom of a Root Pouch, or any container, to avoid anaerobic conditions. Conversely, to help soil retain moisture on hot, dry days, Ms. Trueman sprinkles in a few water-absorbing crystals like Terra Sorb, which take up 200 times their weight in water.

Another recycled plastic product, Rain-Mat, which is infused with its own absorbent crystals, can be cut to size and sandwiched between layers of soil to create a reservoir.

“I put a Rain-Mat about an inch below where the roots of my seedlings are going to end up after they have established themselves,” she said. Plant roots are then encouraged to grow downward, seeking water. And deeper roots mean more heat- and drought-resistant plants.

For D.I.Y. types, Mr. Rosenberg is happy to explain how he built the boxes holding all those plants. He used three heavy-duty brackets for each box, “rated to support at least 300 pounds.” He used a masonry drill to bolt the brackets with masonry anchors to the outside wall. He and Ms. Trueman bought cedar planks from Prince Lumber on West 15th Street and hauled them up to their 11-by-16-foot living room, where they cut them to size with the miter saw. They treated the boards with a nontoxic wood varnish, assembled the boxes with stainless steel screws and then angled them through the windows and bolted them to the brackets.

They also attached 100-pound-rated stainless steel cables from the outside corners of each box to S-hooks mounted to the walls above the windowsill.

“It gives extra support to the bracket farthest from the wall,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Probably redundant, but better safe than sorry.”

For those without the D.I.Y. gene, Ms. Trueman has an alternative.

“I got this for $11 at Lowe’s,” she said, holding up a coated-metal hayrack-style planter. About 30 inches long and 7 inches deep, the basket is lined with permeable coir and can be hooked over a windowsill.

“You could fill this with good compost and plant Bright Lights chard for about $30,” she said.

Ms. Trueman, who used to be a decorative painter before she tore a knee ligament muscling some file cabinets up the stairs, calls herself a botanical bricoleur. She cuts up birch branches to make crown moldings and makes trellises out of bamboo and yarn. She encourages people who think their apartments are too dark to grow plants to pick up a mushroom-growing kit at Home Depot. And maybe one of those hayracks from Lowe’s.

“It’s an entry point,” she said. “We can never grow all our own food in the city, but even getting people connected to one window box connects them to the natural world.”

Kim Kirby

London, UK